The twin suicide attacks in the city of Volgograd are a calculated challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics. They are also a further depressing sign that the Kremlin’s decade-long strategy for pacifying the North Caucasus has failed.
Can the Russian authorities guarantee security at the Games? The answer is no. Sunday and Monday’s bombings — 32 dead and more than 100 injured so far — tell their own grim story.
These latest attacks could have been foreseen. Over the summer, Russia’s chief insurgent leader, Doku Umarov, gave a chilling warning. Umarov had declared an 18-month moratorium on targets in European Russia, which coincided with the rise of mass street protests against Putin’s rule.
In a four-minute video clip released in July last year Umarov announced a new, violent campaign against Russian “unbelievers.”
More specifically, he threatened to blow up Sochi.
Since 2007, Umarov and his followers have been fighting for an Islamic emirate across Russia’s North Caucasus. For the jihadists, Sochi is a place of mournful ghosts: The Black Sea region was once home to the Muslim Circassians, who were driven out, murdered and deported to Turkey by the Russian army in 1864.
Some of the victims are buried in graves near the site of the key Olympic mountain-sports complex in Krasnaya Polyana.
In his video address, shot in a forest, Umarov accused Moscow of holding the Games “on the bones of many, many Muslims killed.”
The event was “satanic,” he added.
Some analysts had doubted that Umarov’s band of jihadist rebels had the capacity or numbers to carry out high-profile attacks. The two Volgograd bombings — one at the railway station, the other on a crowded commuter trolleybus — show the insurgents are indeed capable of striking outside their usual theater of operations.
Russian media reported that the bomber who blew up himself and the bus on Monday morning was an ethnic Russian and 32-year-old convert to Islam called Pavel Pechenkin. This is the Kremlin’s worst nightmare: Slavic jihadists wreaking havoc.
According to Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s security services, the bombings were designed to divert attention and police resources away from Sochi.
The blasts could be a diversion before a further possible attack on the Olympics itself or Moscow, he said.
Either way, the attacks have created a mood of panic. In the capital, the fearful atmosphere is reminiscent of March 2010, after two female suicide bombers blew themselves up on the Moscow metro, killing 40 people.
Cerwyn Moore, a senior lecturer at the university of Birmingham, who writes on terrorism and insurgency in the North Caucasus, said: “This certainly appears to be the work of Umarov’s Caucasian Emirate. It’s an interesting shift in tactics, moving toward soft targets outside the secure zone within the Olympic park itself.”
This looked like the beginning of a sustained terror campaign, he said.
The authorities have taken extraordinary measures to safeguard the Sochi Games. Over the past four or five months, security forces have conducted numerous sweeps of mountain areas used by the rebels in Dagestan and other simmering republics.
Last month, Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s thuggish pro-Moscow leader, announced that Umarov was dead. The Russian military has even flown drones over suspected rebel hideouts.